How to reconcile the pursuit of worldly success with the concept of non-attachment.
The contemporary world sends us mixed messages. In the professional realm, the single-minded pursuit of success is considered a cardinal virtue. In the spiritual realm, the central tenant of Buddhism is non-attachment. These two directives are seemingly contradictory. In Buddhism, no importance is placed on results. Particularly in Zen Buddhism, “the goal” is to have no goal at all. Successful businesses, on the other hand, are built almost entirely on objectives and results.
One of the fundamental tools in managing a business is a mechanism that is actually called “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs). From a business standpoint, OKRs are quite useful. It is a strategy, or lens, that guides your decisions on what to do, and meanwhile reminds you why you’re doing it.
A Buddhist master, on the other hand, would say that what you do doesn’t really matter. What really matters is how you do something, rather than why or what. And even “how” is not exactly the right term. The better question is: what state of consciousness are you in right now, as you’re doing it? Actively aspiring to success is actually defined as failure.
This concept is almost incomprehensible to the 21st century professional. It seems utterly incompatible with the reality of running a functional business or merely succeeding in your chosen career. But this is not necessarily the case.
As most spiritual masters are quick to admit, living a mindful, spiritual life does not require a total withdrawal from the worldly pursuits of job and livelihood. In Buddhism, this is (partially) what is meant by the Middle Path. For those of us who are running a business or working as part of a team or pursuing any worldly goal, the question becomes: is there a way to do this without attachment? The answer is yes.
In Buddhism, it is said that attachment is the root of suffering, and you don’t need to be a Buddhist to recognize the verity of this insight. This central fact of life is easily observable from inside your own mind and emotions during pretty much any hour of any day. Moving through life without attachment — to the extent possible — is arguably the single most useful lesson a person can learn during his or her brief stint as a human being.
The question remains: how do we do this in the context of our daily lives, particularly in the fast-paced, results-driven world of business and professional careerism? The answer is quite simple: it is possible to pursue objectives and key results without attaching yourself to them. Of course, this is much easier said than done — especially considering that your livelihood is often at stake, not to mention the comfort and lifestyle of other people who may depend on you. But striking this balance is possible, even when the stakes are high, and it gets easier with practice.
There’s an interesting book written in the Toltec spiritual tradition, by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr., called The Five Levels of Attachment. It’s a brief but lucid diagnosis of the nature of attachment. Specifically, it differentiates attachment according to five levels of intensity. It’s a tool that can be quite useful when trying to figure out what’s going on with your emotions on a moment-by-moment basis.
In the context of my various ventures in particular, and my worldly pursuits in general, I seem to oscillate between levels one, two, three, and four. Sometimes I switch between levels over the course of hours, or even minutes. I’ve also observed seasonal changes in my level of attachment, as well as an overall trend. When I figuratively graph my levels of attachment against my levels of well-being, on a per-moment basis, I see a fairly strong correlation. Lower levels of attachment generally correlate with lower levels of stress and higher levels of happiness and well-being. Sorry to get mathematical with this, but this is how the inner world seems to work.
Naturally, it’s easier to be pulled into higher levels of attachment during externally stressful times. Increasingly over the years, I’ve been finding a way (usually, but not always) to avoid this automatic response and maintain some degree of internal independence from the external situation. There is even — strangely — a feeling of great power, almost like bliss, when I’m able to access these moments of internal independence. It feels kind of like a superpower, as if a heavy wind is blowing through and you’re standing in the middle of it but somehow there is no surface area on your body with which to catch the wind, and so you’re able to freely stand there and look around while it’s blowing everything else.
It’s kind of surreal — I’m tempted to say. Although it’s actually the opposite of surreal. The windiness is a knee-jerk fabrication of the mind, and it’s both unpleasant and usually counter-productive. By applying the strategy of non-attachment, you can step aside from the wind without diminishing your ability to effectively respond to whatever external situation is triggering the storm. If anything, this power gives you an advantage that the vast majority of people fail to access, for which they are easily blown around.
I don’t have these moments as often as I’d like, and sometimes they only last for a brief stretch. But they are more valuable to me than money. If forced to choose, I would willingly sacrifice external success in exchange for greater access to moments like this. And yet, I’m also finding that this type of attitude, in these types of situations, seems to attract external success.
It’s all a very interesting mystery. At the end of the day, all of this is just a canvass on which we are painting the beauty and idiosyncrasies of our existence, which will end in the blink of an eye of this universe. Might as well acquire a few super-hero powers along the way.